The Garden House
psychological thriller · contemporary women · mystery · domestic life · thriller fiction
“Mahkovec's prose is sharp and fluid…The premise is a fun one, and Miranda is a finely drawn character...An engrossing, if subdued, psychological tale." —Kirkus Reviews
A story of love, family, and home set among the lush summer evenings of Seattle. Themes of gardens and buried secrets bring to mind the novels of Kate Morton, while the importance of home and family is reminiscent of Maeve Binchy.
When Miranda's two children leave home, her sense of loss is intensified by a void in her own life journey. She has set aside her dreams of becoming an artist for far too long. In an attempt to rekindle the beauty and passion of her youth, she fixes up the garden house as a studio--only to discover her husband has rented it out for the summer to a shy, somewhat mysterious young man.
Soon after his arrival, Miranda begins to have disturbing dreams. Her friends dismiss them. Her husband blames them on the teen shelter Miranda has recently visited. Is she simply experiencing a mid-life crisis? Perhaps empty-nest syndrome? But Miranda is convinced her dreams have meaning, especially when she notices her new tenant's increasingly suspicious behavior.
When her dreams become more urgent, Miranda can no longer ignore her fear that someone is in danger. Is something sinister lurking right outside in her beloved garden?
There's only one way to find out...
— scroll down to read book sample —
"The author is a gifted storyteller, as this book engages the reader on several levels…Mahkovec has written a story that defies the reader to put it down before the end, and the end is impossible to guess. The Garden House is a slow-paced, insightful novel that I enjoyed very much, the sort of beautifully-written story I associate with literary fiction." —Readers' Favorite
“I love everything about The Garden House by Linda Mahkovec. Linda Mahkovec writes stories about Love, Beauty and Meaning! In this heartwarming and emotional touching story, Linda describes the landscape and gorgeous flowers, the home, the people in all ways that touch the senses…I would recommend this Fiction book to any reader that likes a mystery, and enjoys such a well written book.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“I have read all of this Linda Mahkovec's books and they all leave me with wanting more. I love the way she writes the descriptions are so vivid. I couldn't put this book down until I finished it all in one sitting.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“Linda Mahkovec is a great writer. Her writing grabbed me from the get! This book touched on so many different and captivating topics including family dynamics, growth as individuals, and relationships. On top of this there was also mystery. It’s a definite page turner. I look forward to reading more from this excellent author.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Mahkovec is the author of The Christmastime Series (7 books) set predominantly in New York City during the World War II years. She also has two collections of short stories, The Dreams of Youth and Seven Tales of Love, and a contemporary novel set in Seattle, The Garden House.
Themes of love, family, and home dominate her stories, and though they may be set against the backdrop of war or deal with the disappointments in life, the overarching feel is uplifting and hopeful. Threads that run through her work are the search for beauty and meaning, and the artistic female character—whether she is a painter, a gardener, or simply someone who lives creatively and seeks connection.
Mahkovec was born and raised in a small town in Illinois. She then spent several years in the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle, and for the past thirty years has lived in New York City. She has a PhD in English, specializing in Victorian literature. She has previously published as Agnes Irene.
SAMPLE FROM THE GARDEN HOUSE
Miranda awoke to the darkness of early morning. A barely-there breeze softly swelled the curtains, causing the sheers to billow as if in slow motion. Before going to bed, she had opened the window and parted the curtains, to better hear the sounds of the night and the morning birdsong. But at this hour all was hushed, except for the rhythmic breathing of her husband. The troubling sense of yearning, that of late had kept her company, had awakened with her. She slipped off the comforter, and walked to the window.
She lightly rubbed her bare arms. In the garden below, only the white flowers were visible – cone-shaped hydrangeas, discs of Queen Anne’s lace, full-blossomed peonies – dream flowers of night. They appeared weightless, as if they hovered in timelessness, and would not attach to the stems and root until the fuller light of morning connected them. Further down, the garden house loomed out of the darkness – like the flowers, not yet anchored, still in silent communion with the night. As she rested her eyes on it, almost imperceptibly it shifted – from pale gray to the beginnings of white, gaining in shape and substance as dawn gave way to day. Now she could make out the blue trim, the window boxes. Soon it would stand firm in the bright light of morning.
Everything was right there – in the tenuous linking of night with dawn, in the garden house full of memories, in the flowers and paths of the garden, in the longing that spilled out into it all. It was as if she were looking at a puzzle, and almost had it pieced together while it lingered at the edge of night – but then it completely disappeared with the morning light, as if it had never existed.
Breakfast. She would make breakfast.
She dressed quietly, washed up, and went downstairs. As she got out the eggs, milk, and butter, she tried to brush away the webby sense of discontent that clung about her. A nudging that she should be doing something more now. That her old role had changed and she must also change, or risk slipping into vagueness.
Into a large blue bowl she cracked the eggs, and added milk, vanilla, a touch of sugar. Then she began dipping slices of bread into the mix and placing them in a pan sizzling with butter.
While they browned, she turned on the tea kettle. She reached for the coffee press, and opened the bag of coffee – lifting it to her nose and taking in the rich aroma before measuring it out. The scent alone warmed her to morning, made her eager to begin the day. She took out several oranges and began slicing them to squeeze for juice. While she prepared breakfast, she heard the shower running. She smiled. The scent must have drifted upstairs.
Cooking grounded her, rooted her, in the same way gardening did. And Ben. And the kids. She caught the spray of citrus mixing with the aroma of fresh coffee, and moved more briskly as she began to set the table.
She filled a few ramekins with jams and sour cream, and poured maple syrup into a small beaker. Then she took out a bowl and filled it with strawberries and blueberries. She looked at the table and wanted it to be fuller, richer. She lifted the bright pink kalanchoe from the window shelves, and set it on the table. Too bad the kids weren’t there to enjoy it. Clara would love the way the flowering plant matched the quilted placemats. And Michael would appreciate the mound of French toast dusted with powdered sugar; he had his father’s love of big breakfasts.
With one hand on the counter, she gazed at the table, secure now in the routines of her kitchen, of good food, of color and light, a prettily laid table. She leaned her head to one side and studied the setting as if it were a painting, and briefly imagined herself sitting at the table, wearing a long kimono-like robe – peacock blue, or perhaps a pattern in pinks and orange.
She glanced down at her sweat pants and t-shirt. Well, they were more practical for cooking, she told herself. Still, she wished she blended more with the arrangement – the one of the table, as well as the one in her head.
Miranda smiled at Ben’s quickness of step coming downstairs. She could always count on his appetite.
“Smells wonderful!” Ben said, entering the kitchen and giving her a quick kiss. He stared at the table. “All this for us? On a weekday?”
Miranda lifted and dropped one shoulder. “I was up early so I thought I’d make breakfast.”
“I’m not complaining.” Ben took his seat at the table and poured the steaming coffee into their cups.
Miranda sat down and looked at the ceiling-to-floor shelves behind Ben, a sort of small green-house that jutted out into the garden. It always filled her with happiness – the photos of the kids among the flowering plants, painted boxes and vases and tiny candles scattered throughout. But this morning, as a backdrop to the breakfast table, it filled her with melancholy.
She took a slice of French toast and poured some maple syrup over it and added a few strawberries. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to cooking for just two.”
“It’ll just take some time,” said Ben, as he drizzled syrup over his French toast.
“I suppose so.”
Ben looked over at Miranda, her tone at odds with the enthusiastic breakfast spread.
“I think I’ll get started on the cupboards and closets,” she said. “Paula has been asking me to hand over any of my old pieces that are gathering dust. I told her with the kids gone, I was going to clean house and get rid of things. She seems to think my old paintings and sculptures will sell at her stores. You know how she can make anything look good. I doubt if they’ll sell, but I guess it’s worth a try.”
“I’m sure she’s right. Your work is great. I always tell you that, but you never believe me.”
“That’s because you’re partial, Ben.”
“Can’t fault me for good taste.”
“Hmm,” Miranda responded with skepticism. “I guess I’ll show her my old stuff, but what I really want to do is set up the studio and get started on some new things.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” said Ben. “I think I found a renter for the garden house for the summer.”
Miranda put her fork down. “I thought we decided against it.”
Ben looked up. “We did? I thought the plan was to rent it out until we were ready to put up that wall, make some of those changes we talked about.”
“Ben, that was months ago. I told you just last week that I wanted to use it as a studio this summer. I want to finish that screen, for one thing. And I haven’t done any painting in years.”
“Miranda, I cut the boards for that screen two years ago.” Ben’s hand hesitated over the berries. Berries or jam? He decided on a few mixed berries and sprinkled them over another piece of French toast.
“I know. And now that I have some time, I can finally finish it.”
“So I’ll tell the guy it’s not available.” He lifted the coffee press and refilled his cup. “Oh, remember to set out Michael’s camping gear if you come across it. He wants us to take it to him the next time we’re down. Apparently, his new girlfriend – Casey? – is a hiker and camper.” He raised his eyebrows at Miranda and grinned. “He sounds pretty happy. Portland was definitely the right choice for him.”
“Caitlin,” said Miranda. She placed an elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand, lightly tapping her lips with her knuckles. She took a deep breath and resumed eating. “No. Don’t tell him.”
Ben raised his head. “Tell who what?”
“The tenant. The guy.”
“Oh. You sure? I thought you just said – ”
“No. That can wait. The rent will help with the renovations.” She took another slice of French toast and spread on some sour cream and raspberry jam. “So who is he?”
“Somebody Doug knows. Or his wife, rather. A teacher or journalist or something.” He looked up, trying to remember if there was anything else he knew about him. “From out East. New York, I think,” he said, as if that summed it all up.
Miranda made a small sound of exasperation. “Is that all you know about him? How old is he? Is he married? Kids? What’s he like? What does he teach?”
Ben drew a blank at each question.
“What’s his name?”
“William. Something. Been teaching for thirty years. I don’t think he’s arriving until next week. I’ll find out more today and let you know.” He tried to read the expression on Miranda’s face – far-off look, slight frown. He had been sure that his news of a tenant would make her happy. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just that – I thought that if we rented it out, it would be nice to have a woman. An artist. Maybe someone with a small child or two. Wouldn’t that be nice? To have kids down there? Just on a temporary basis.”
“You can always turn it into a daycare center if that’s what you want.” His suggestion, as he knew it would be, was met with a sharp glance from Miranda. “I mean it,” he continued. “The kids are gone, and now you finally have some time to do what you want to do. If it’s a daycare you want – ”
“I don’t want to run a daycare.”
“Well, you did a few years ago. Don’t you remember? You had plans to – ”
“Well, I don’t now. That’s the whole point, Ben. I want to start doing some of the things I’ve been putting off for the last twenty-five years.” As soon as the words were out, she regretted them. Ben would think she was blaming him for why she hadn’t pursued her dreams, even though it had been her idea to leave school when they got married and work while Ben finished his degree.
Ben looked down at his plate, and then up at Miranda. “I know. I’m behind you on that. Just – tell me what it is you want to do, and I’ll help you with it.”
Miranda’s eyes filled with worry. “That’s just it, Ben. I don’t know. I really don’t. How can I have gotten to this age and not know what I want to do?” She glanced about as she searched for an answer. “What if all those things they say about middle age are true? What if I get foggy-brained and too tired to accomplish anything ever again? And I just keep gaining weight and – ”
Ben laughed and leaned over to rub her shoulder. “Aw, c’mon. What are you so worried about? You just keep getting better and better. I never could keep up with you.”
“Ha! You haven’t gained a pound. While I – ” she shook her head at the unfinished thought. “Though I do think the dry cleaner is partly to blame – everything comes back smaller. More coffee?” she asked, preventing any chance of a rebuttal.
Ben smiled and held up his cup. “Take your time and think about the tenant. You can always say no. It’s completely your call.”
She watched him fix another piece of French toast. “No. It’s a good idea. I’m not quite ready to paint or whatever, anyway. It’s going to take me weeks, maybe months, to really clean out closets and organize everything. A tenant makes sense. I’ll work on the garden house today, get it ready for him. It needs a few things.” She heard herself and almost cringed, as if another delay in her plans was exactly what she wanted.
Ben caught the wistful tone behind her words. “Hey – how about dinner tonight?” he asked. “At McMillans – watch the sun set on the lake. You’ll have your hands full today; this way you won’t have to think about cooking.”
“You know me well,” she said, stretching her legs and resting them on his lap. Miranda loved the restaurant’s seasonal menu and always looked forward to a new culinary experience – a fresh way of preparing a vegetable, an unusual combination of herbs or spices, or a completely new dish that she would later try to recreate.
Ben’s phone rang and he glanced at the number. “Sam.”
He chatted with his old friend, rubbing Miranda’s legs as he talked, stopping and starting in pace with the conversation.
Miranda picked a few berries from the bowl, eating them one at a time, and watched Ben, always so animated and energetic. After all these years, she thought, I’m still wild about him. He doesn’t even have to do anything. He can just sit there and eat and talk on the phone and laugh – and it all makes me love him so much. He was agreeing to something, raising his eyebrows at her at some good news. She just hoped it didn’t involve fishing.
Ben speared one last slice and shrugged at Miranda, as if it was so delicious he couldn’t help himself. He poured out some syrup, gave a chuckle, and nodded again. “Sounds good. I’ll tell her – she’ll love it. See ya, buddy.” He slipped the phone
into his pocket.
“What will I love?”
“He invited us to his new place on the peninsula. Another month or so and it’ll be ready. Doesn’t that sound great?” He cast an imaginary fishing line.
A weak smile formed on her lips.
“Hiking, fishing, sitting around the fire pit at night. He said he’s discovered a local berry farm that you’ll love.”
Miranda smiled at the cozy vision. “That does sound nice.” Dear ole Sam, she thought. Always sure to include something she would enjoy.
Ben took one last bite and scooted his chair from the table. Then he took his jacket from the hall tree and headed out the door.
Miranda followed him outside, rubbing her arms against the chill. “I’ll make a reservation. What time should I say?”
“Better make it 8:00. See you there.” He squeezed her goodbye, intensifying his embrace until he got the laugh he was looking for.
She walked out on the flagstones and watched him drive off. A trip to the peninsula might be a good idea, after all. It would be beautiful there. She loved the deep forest walks, the smell of wood fire at night. And Sam was always good company. Though only ten years older than Ben, Sam was in many ways his mentor. She would always be grateful to him for helping Ben through a tough time. The memory of those years, of the stress Ben was under, still filled her with pain. At one point she feared he was heading for a breakdown. Long hours, corporate politics, an ever-increasing work load. It was Sam who convinced him to leave the firm and work with a smaller architect company. And it had changed their lives.
A weekend with Sam would be good for them. She could walk along the shore while they fished. After all, she’d been wanting to exercise more, get back into shape. Here was her chance. Why did she always meet everything with such resistance? Like the idea of a tenant. That, too, might be a good thing. I used to be more open, more adventurous, she thought. When did that change?
Miranda lifted her face to the sun. She loved the way the garden smelled in the early morning, the earthy dampness from the light Seattle rain, the whiff of pine, the sun just beginning to release a hint of jasmine from the trellis. And if she leaned in close enough to the roses – she cupped her hands around the dewy pinkness, buried her face in the flower, and closed her eyes at such sweetness. She often wished they could move their bed out here, sleep under the stars, put up a little canopy against the rain –
There was Paula, waving to her.
“Good morning!” called Miranda, and crossed over to where Paula was planting flowers along her wooden fence.
Paula stood and held up a potted flower. “Just look at this clematis – it’s as big as a saucer.”
Miranda reached out to touch the pale purple flower. “It’s beautiful.”
“Just got it at the nursery yesterday. They still have some left.”
“I’ll go this morning. I need to get flowers for the window boxes,” she said, gesturing to the garden house. “I think we’ve found a renter for the summer.”
Paula inclined her head. “I thought you were going to use it as a studio.”
“We changed our minds. I want to organize the house first. Then think about what I want to do with the garden house.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean you’re going to postpone your plans again. I remember a time when you were always working on some painting or sculpture or something.”
“Yeah, well – that was ages ago.”
“What is it you’re afraid of? What’s stopping you?”
Miranda laughed at the ridiculous notion. “I’m not afraid of anything, Paula. It’s just – I haven’t done anything for so long, and…”
Paula put a hand on her hip. “Does this have anything to do with turning fifty?”
“No, of course not. No. Not at all. It’s just – I’m not sure if I can tap into that part of myself again. I think it might be gone.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment. It’s in there. You just need to dig.” And with that, she knelt back down and shoved the trowel into the ground. “So who’s the tenant? A young painter with a five-year old child?”
Miranda laughed at the details of her earlier vision. “No, an older man. A teacher.”
“Well, you can still move ahead with your plans. No reason you can’t paint outside or in the garage.”
“First I want to organize the house. Now that the kids are gone, I can clear out old stuff, get rid of things. And then think about painting or whatever.”
Paula gave a skeptical raise of her eyebrows.
Miranda pushed her foot at a clump of grass along the fence. “I think it will help me to focus, to start with a clean slate. I have so much stuff – old pieces I’ve held onto, half-finished projects. I want to lighten my load, and start fresh, you know? Then maybe by the fall or so I can be ready to really work.”
“Hmm. Well, don’t throw away anything without letting me check it out first. The new shop opens in a month. I need to fill it up, and your things would add just the right touch.”
“I doubt if there’s anything you can use, but I’ll start going through things.”
“You really should start on something new, as well. You’ll have the time now.”
“Yeah.” Miranda nodded and looked around. “Well, I better get started with everything. See you later.” She began to walk back to the house.
“Don’t wait too long, Miranda!”
Miranda turned and waited for a final word of reprimand.
But Paula was holding up the pale purple clematis. “They’re sure to go fast.”
At the nursery, Miranda’s cart burst with color and variety: several trays of mixed red, orange, and magenta impatiens; pots of red, pink, and white geraniums; deep blue periwinkle and yellow begonias, and two of the purple clematis for around the garden house door. She came across a variety of petunia she hadn’t seen before, and added it to the cart. She always had a hard time stopping, once at the nursery. Every plant seemed to call to her – like the purple alyssum that would match so nicely. She broke apart a few trays and arranged them around the clematis, and took a step back to imagine how they would look in the planter – then she added some white alyssum for contrast. And might as well get some marigolds, she thought; they’ll bloom well into the fall.
As she loaded the cartons of flowers into her car, she realized that, just like the French toast, she had overdone it. It would take her all day to plant so many flowers.
By late afternoon, she had planted the window boxes, several pots of flowers, and on either side of the door, two tubs of alyssum and clematis. After watering them all, she hauled down a bench from the garden and set it next to the door. She stood back and admired her work. It was beautiful. She wondered if the older teacher would appreciate it. No matter. It gave her pleasure to see it looking so pretty, and it brought her one step closer to having it fixed up as a studio.
She went inside the garden house and began to clean, sweeping and dusting. Though she tried to ignore the pile of wood and canvas for the screen, it stared at her from the corner, asking for completion. It would have to wait. She rolled up the canvas, and used the wood slats to prop open the door. The day had grown warm and she welcomed the light breeze.
Tired now, she sat down on the floor, resting her elbows on her knees. Then with a sigh of fatigue she stretched out, the hardwood floor feeling good against her sore back. She gazed up at the shifting shadows of leaves and branches on the ceiling and wall. I could trace them, she thought – paint them in gold and pale green. It could be beautiful.
She let her eyes wander over the details of her beloved garden house – the deep, forget-me-not blue of the dresser and window trim, the pillows and curtains she and Clara had made. They had spent so many hours over the years down here – painting, sewing, little by little transforming the run-down structure into a charming, livable cottage.
Clara had loved the profusion of forget-me-nots that surrounded the garden house, and decided to christen the cottage the Forget-Me-Not House. It had seen many tea parties and birthday celebrations, and Clara’s favorite, the fairy parties. Ben and Michael were always good sports about helping out – lighting lanterns throughout the garden, tying fluttering ribbons from the trees.
Michael had also used the garden house for his share of sleepovers and parties. Miranda smiled as she remembered the pirate-themed treasure hunt for his eighth birthday. She and Ben had painted black whiskers and heavy eyebrows on the little boys, wound bandanas around their heads, and sent them off with the first clue. The tiny band of boys made their way through cottony spiders’ dens, and over the River of Forgetfulness. The final clue led to a Halloween skeleton, whose bony finger pointed to the half-buried treasure chest. She would never forget the cries of joy as the boys brushed off the dried leaves, opened the lid, and beheld the gold chocolate coins, toys, and shiny plastic doubloons. And her utter surprise at their delight in the play jewelry she had draped inside the trunk. The boys had proudly claimed the booty, looping strands of plastic pearls and bright purple and green Mardi Gras beads around their necks, the jewelry adding a strange feminine touch to their little-boy wildness.
A sense of loss welled up inside her. Those times were long gone. Michael and Clara were gone. Grown. Making their way in the world. She was happy for them, happy that they were entering a new phase in their lives. She pressed on her eyes to push down the tears.
A car pulled into the driveway up at the house, and a young man checked a piece of paper against the address. He then parked, and walked up to the house. He was dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up against the warmth – and yet there was an air of formality about him.
He knocked at the door in a tentative manner, took a step back, and waited. After a few moments, he rang the doorbell, and again stepped back from the door, with his hands linked behind him.
Turning to the side, as if indecisive about what to do, he noticed the flagstones that led to the side of the house. He followed them, and down below saw a small cottage with the door propped open. He hesitated a moment, glanced back at the house, and then made his way down the steps to the garden house.
He walked onto the cottage’s low wooden porch, noticing the empty potting soil bags and the freshly planted flowers, and took a step forward to look inside the open door. He was about to call out hello, when he noticed a woman lying on the floor with her hands over her eyes. He quickly retreated, but his foot hit one of the wooden planks leaning against the door and sent them all crashing to the floor with a loud clap.
Miranda let out a cry, scrambled to her feet, and put her hand to her chest. “Oh, my God!”
They began talking over one another as the man clumsily tried to stand the wood planks back against the door. “I’m so sorry – ”
“You startled me!”
“I didn’t mean – ”
They stood looking at one another, then Miranda pointed towards him. “Are you – ”
“William.” He leaned forward and extended his hand. “William Priestly.”
Miranda started to shake his hand, then rubbed her palms on her jeans first. “Miranda. I’ve been cleaning and I was just – ” she motioned to the floor where she had been stretched out. “Resting. Ben said you weren’t arriving until next week.” “
Sorry, I took an earlier flight. I can come back later, if you’d like.” He began to leave.
“No, no, that’s quite all right.”
“I spoke to your husband this morning and he suggested that I stop by this afternoon.”
Miranda waved away his concern. “Really, it’s quite all right. So you’re interested in renting the garden house for the summer?”
“Perhaps for two months or so, if that’s all right.”
“That’s fine. We don’t have any plans for it at the moment. Come in, come in. I’ll show you around.” Miranda cleared some of the cleaning supplies out of the way and set them against the wall. “Well, here it is.” She made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “Just one large room, for the most part.”
William took a step inside, and let his eyes wander over the place.
“We fixed it up over the years, using it mostly for our kids’ parties and sleepovers. But they’re gone now, so we thought we’d try renting it out. Maybe make a few minor renovations.”
She smiled and waited for him to walk around or ask questions, but he just stood there with his hands behind his back.
“Well, let me give you a quick tour. We’re in the living room/bedroom/study,” she said in a playful tone. As she looked at the double bed with its blue and rose bedcover and the assortment of pillows, it struck her as being perhaps too feminine.
One of her hand-painted floral screens and the dresser formed a kind of wall, offering some degree of privacy. But these, too, were draped with lace. “You can move anything that’s in the way,” she said, lifting a corner of the lace and letting it drop.
Against the wall stood a large desk and an overstuffed chair with a lamp behind it. William walked over and ran his hand across the desk. “Looks like oak.”
“It is. A teacher’s desk from the 1940s or so. I found it at a garage sale years ago.” She showed him the sliding panel that pulled out. “For grading papers, I guess.”
He smiled. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Miranda pointed to the other side of the room. “We might put up a wall there, divide it up a bit. We’re not sure yet.” She pointed to the wooden rafters up above. “High ceilings for such a small place.”
Again, she waited for William to say something, but he just lifted his eyes to the ceiling.
“The kids had a Halloween party here one year – a kind of haunted house. Skeletons hanging from the rafters. A gauntlet of horrors – you know, blindfold the kids and dip their hands into cold, oily spaghetti.” She lowered her voice and said, “These are the brains of Frankenstein. These are his eyes.”
William waited for her to explain.
She laughed lightly. “Hard-boiled eggs. Anyway – back here is the bathroom.” She opened the door and pointed to the shower. “Good water pressure.”
“And over here is the kitchen. Small, but kind of cozy. And nice with the window right by the table.” She parted the blue calico curtains and smiled at the view of branches arcing over the window. “That’s a butterfly bush. It will bloom in a few more weeks. All purple. You might see some monarchs, or some of those yellow-and-black tiger butterflies.”
“Very nice,” William said.
“And there’s a separate back entrance.” She opened the French doors, revealing several flowering bushes and a gravel patch. “There’s room to park back here and enter this way. Very private.” Miranda felt her cheeks heat up, realizing that she had implied something she didn’t intend. “Convenient for bringing in the groceries.” She closed the doors, and moved back to the main room.
She pointed to a wall of cupboards and closets. “Lots of storage. I think the people we bought it from built all these. Or maybe someone before them. I don’t really know.” She opened and closed them as she spoke. “You can hang things in this one. There’s still a lot of stuff in them from when the kids were young. Just move things around if you need the space.”
“I don’t have too much. It’s all very comfortable.” He noticed some steps along the wall and raised his head to see where they ended.
“A loft,” said Miranda. “The steps are a little steep, and it gets hot up there in the summer. But it’s nice to have the extra bed for visitors.” She walked to the front door. “Well, that’s pretty much it. What do you think? Will it suit you?”
“It’s very nice. A real haven. I would love to rent it. Unless you have other people interested in it?”
“No, we never got around to advertising it. So it’s yours if you like. I can have it ready by Saturday. Or tomorrow if you want.”
“Saturday is fine. Thank you.”
They walked out onto the low porch. Miranda scooped up the empty potting soil bags and stuffed them into some of the empty flower containers. “I can change the quilt, if you like.”
William turned to Miranda, unsure of what she meant.
“I mean if it’s too feminine. I have others if you’d prefer.”
William smiled at her concern. “No. It’s fine. It’s all very comfortable. It feels – ” he looked around for the words to describe it. “It feels like – a real home.”
Miranda laughed. “It is a real home. An extension of the house.” She gazed lovingly at the cottage. “A lot of happy memories here.”
William stepped off the porch and looked at it from a few paces back, clearly admiring it. He noticed the small hand-painted sign above the door, and read, “The Forget-Me-Not House.”
“My daughter named it that when she was little. But somehow we always refer to it as the Garden House.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Two. Michael and Clara. They both moved away recently. Michael to his first job in Portland; he just graduated in engineering. And Clara moved to San Francisco. She lived at home while she went to college here, but when her boyfriend was transferred to San Francisco, she decided to switch schools and join him there.” Miranda knew she would go on and on about the kids if she didn’t stop herself. She stepped off the porch and shielded her eyes against the sun. “Are you from New York, William?”
She nodded and waited for him to say more, but he remained silent. After a moment, she asked, “And Ben said you’re a teacher?”
“Yes. I teach English.”
“I teach at a community college. Composition and literature. Thought I’d use the summer to get some reading done. Work on a few journal articles. I think this place will be perfect for that.” He shaded his eyes and looked over at the sloped landscape.
“Looks like you have quite a garden there.” He began to walk back to the flagstone steps.
“Come this way,” Miranda said, gesturing to her left. “We’ll take the scenic route back. Through the garden.”
The path she took led to a terraced landscaped area that winded up towards the house. Her pride was her garden and she wanted to see William’s reaction to it. She knew it would be at its best; it had rained yesterday and was now luxuriating in the warm afternoon sun.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “We’ve had such a cool, late spring that many of the early flowers are still in bloom.” A note of excitement filled her voice. Seeing her garden through other people’s eyes always gave her a thrill, and a burst of gardening inspiration usually followed.
Miranda led the way to the lower garden, where the tree-like rhododendrons and lower azaleas formed a sort of double wall; a few purple, magenta, and white blooms still lingered on the bushes. She loved every section of her garden, but this shadier and damper part always stirred in her a feeling of tenderness. It grew thick with hosta and ferns, and perennials that didn’t need much care – patches of bleeding hearts and shy lily-of-the-valley.
“Oh, look!” she cried. “The coral bells have bloomed.” She bent down to take a closer look. “Clara always called these fairy flowers.”
The perfume of the lily-of-the-valley pulled her closer to them; she picked a tiny sprig, and held it to her nose. Then she tucked it under her wedding band as a reminder to come back and gather a small bouquet of the shade flowers to show Ben.
Where the path began to climb, the garden widened, as if opening its arms in welcome. A slight breeze gently animated the garden, swaying the weeping willow branches, and causing low notes of wind chimes to fill the air. Filtered sunlight made its way through the tree branches, casting shadow and light among the plants. Miranda brushed her hand against a clump of pink astilbes, their feathery plumes illuminated by a shaft of light.
She gestured for William to take the lead up the tiered steps. Though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell that he was taking it all in, pausing in front of some her favorite things: the wrought iron chair entwined with ivy, the birdhouses and birdbaths scattered throughout. He paused to look at the rustic benches and tables, the clusters of flowers. When they came upon the goldfish pond, he turned and smiled at her.
“My son and Ben made that for me one Mother’s Day. And Ben added the little bridge a few years back. Ben’s an architect, you know, and enjoys carpentry.”
William stopped to run his hand over an old sundial, its base nestled in a cloud of cobalt blue lobelia. He seemed to enjoy spotting the almost hidden clay sculptures peeking out from clumps of flowers: winged figures, tiny houses, rabbits, birds. He stopped and looked back over the garden. “It’s beautiful. Interesting.”
Miranda smiled out at her garden, delighted that he understood. Over the years, she had shown it to many different people. Some of them loved it and felt at home in it – others were seemingly indifferent, or commented on the bother of weeding or the cost of upkeep, which let her know that they didn’t really see it.
“Are you the gardener?” William asked. “Someone put a lot of thought into this, a lot of themselves.”
“Oh, the whole family made it, really. Ben helps with the planting and trimming. He put in a sprinkler system two years ago, which really helped, and last year he added the antique iron fencing. Michael made some of the benches and tables. And Clara insisted on the swing,” she said, gesturing to a wooden swing that hung from an oak tree, with faded blue ribbons tied at the seat.
William stood still and took it all in. “It’s really remarkable. A sense of peace pervades it. I feel like I’ve stepped out of time.”
“Feel free to use it anytime you want. There are several good reading spots. And there’s a hammock down below that we put up every summer. Just brush away the pine needles and leaves.”
They reached the sunny upper garden where a bubbling fountain stood among brightly colored blooms. Daisies, dahlias, and clumps of daylilies crowded against each other, and pressed against the benches, trellises, and fencing. With the afternoon breeze lightly swaying the plants, and small white butterflies darting from flower to flower, the garden appeared vibrant, joyful even.
As they strolled back to William’s car, Miranda felt suddenly very happy. “It will be nice to have someone enjoying the garden house and garden. They don’t get much attention anymore – not like they used to.”
“I’m sure I’ll enjoy them both.” William extended his hand. “On Saturday, then. Around 10:00?”
“That’ll be fine.” She shook his hand and watched him get into his car and drive away. Then she went back down to close up the garden house and pick her bouquet, her spirits strangely lifted.
Miranda arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early and found a seat by the wall of windows. She ordered a glass of wine, and began to make a list of things to get done: organize the drawers and cupboards, clean out the garage, go through the closets – including her own. It had taken her half an hour to find something to wear for tonight. She had wanted to change her look a bit, but everything she tried on was too tight. So she had settled on the usual black skirt and her favorite blue sweater. But she wore her hair loose for a change, and put on a brighter shade of lipstick.
She brought her hand to one of her earrings, the lapis lazuli drops Clara gave her for her birthday, and remembered her comment: “You should dress up more often, Mom.”
Clara was right. She needed updating. There were things in her closet she hadn’t worn in over twenty years. She needed to get rid of things, start fresh. Though there were some pieces she just couldn’t part with. Clothes that reminded her of her younger days, when all her life was before her.
She gazed out the window, remembering how she used to dress in velvets and satins, Victorian jewelry and long 1920s necklaces, vintage blouses and dresses. Everything Bohemian and dramatic, though it hadn’t seemed so at the time.
She used to ride her bike to school in long skirts, dress up to visit galleries, and work at her various part-time jobs wearing clothes from vintage stores, consignment shops, and import stores – many of the shops located in the Pike Place Market. She remembered the thrill of adventure when she escaped her department store job and explored the Market over her lunch hour. Running down the stairs in Post Alley, and then wandering through the maze of stores, delighting in the Tibetan beads, the Moroccan vases, the antique lace collars, the incense and oils from far away. More often than not, the adventure ended with the purchase of a few pieces of rose-flavored Turkish Delight – the pale-pink, translucent candy dusted in powdered sugar came to symbolize the promise of future travel.
Miranda gave a deep sigh. Youth should be a time of hope and promise. She saw that in the kids now, especially in Clara. For the past several years, Clara’s dreams had also been her dreams. She had convinced Clara to take two weeks in the summer to travel, before settling into her classes in the fall; and it was as if a part of her was making the trip as well.
Miranda looked down at her bullet points – cleaning out closets and drawers? That is one boring list, she thought, wadding it up.
Some part of her sat up and wondered why middle age, or any age for that matter, shouldn’t also be a time of hope and promise. Why should youth be the only time of discovery? Why was that early dreaming self at odds with her current sense of self ? She remembered the feeling of being all fired up by starting a new painting, whether it was a medieval miniature or a whimsical landscape, or experimenting with silk-screening, or learning how to use a potter’s wheel.
But without the dreams that accompanied youth, such pursuits now seemed like dead ends. Some vital connection was gone. Her garden, her home, her kids – that was her life. And those things had filled her, until recently. Had it been turning fifty? Or the fact that the kids had left home and moved away? Did she even have a purpose in life anymore?
She saw Ben enter the restaurant, and a feeling of happiness washed over her. His presence often served as ballast to her wandering thoughts that sometimes carried her too far away.
As he approached the table, she arched her eyebrows.
“I know, I know,” he said, kissing her cheek and sitting next to her. “William called to say he was in town early and asked if he could stop by to see the place. I had the phone in my hand to call you, but I got interrupted, and then I was pulled into a meeting, and then – ” He threw his hands up. “I didn’t remember until I was almost here.”
“A phone call would have been nice. I nearly jumped out of my skin when he appeared at the garden house.”
Ben playfully nudged her, letting her know that he didn’t buy her annoyance with him.
She leaned into him, and handed him a glass of wine. “I ordered it for you.”
He took a sip, and let his gaze linger on Miranda. “You look great, Honey. What’d you do?”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said, though she was happy he noticed.
Ben took the menu she handed him, and opened it. “So, what did you think of Mr. William Priestly?”
Miranda gave a light shrug. “He seems like a nice guy. Quiet. I think he’ll be a good tenant. He’s young, Ben. I thought you said he was old.”
“No, I said he was around thirty.”
“No, you said he’d been teaching for thirty years.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did. I expected a much older man. I had no idea who he was at first.”
“Well, what do you think? Are you okay with having him as a tenant for the summer? Or do you want to set up your studio? Because I thought about it, and maybe it’s time to make those changes. Put up that wall, if you want. Make the window bigger.”
Miranda took a sip of wine and looked away. “I’m not quite ready yet for the studio. Fall will be soon enough.”
They ordered their meals, and then she began to butter a piece of bread. “I’m actually kind of glad that the garden house will be used. It’s such a pretty place. And William really seemed to appreciate the garden.”
“Then he’ll be the perfect tenant,” laughed Ben. His phone rang and he frowned at the name. “Sorry, Honey. It’s the Difficult client,” he said, stepping away to take the call.
Miranda held the wine glass in her hand and gazed out the window. The sun was lowering in the west. A pair of Canadian geese glided onto the water, making long golden ripples that widened into dark lines flecked with shimmery pink and orange. I could paint that, she thought. Just the water. If only I could capture that ephemeral beauty, those fleeting shades of color and light.
Ben sat back down, shaking his head. “Now she wants the sunroom where the kitchen is, and she wants the kitchen – Oh, well. No need to talk about work now.” He clasped Miranda’s hand.
His warm hand brought her back into the moment. She gazed into his smiling eyes, and impulsively brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. “You make me happy, Ben.”
He gave a start of mock surprise. “Is that the wine talking?”
She laughed. “Maybe it is. But you do make me happy. You always have.”
Ben’s face filled with pleasure and he squeezed her hand. “I hope so.”